Welcome with Nazanin Afshin-Jam

Nazanin Afshin-Jam, international human rights activist and President and co-founder of Stop Child Executions, addresses the 1st Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Nazanin Afshin-Jam: Good morning and welcome to the Geneva summit for Human Rights and Democracy. My name is Nazanin Afshin-Jam. I’m a human rights activist and president and co-founder of the Stop Child Executions organization. I’m going to be acting as the chair for today’s conference. On behalf of the co-organizers, an international coalition of Human Rights NGOs, I’m honored to welcome all who have come near and far to join us today in the Geneva International Conference Center directly across from the UN headquarters, the European headquarters, as well as all those who are joining us via webcast from around the world. 

We meet here one day before the UN Durban Review Conference whose stated objective is to assess member states for their record on racism, discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. The eyes of the world look on Geneva. Who will guide the assembled governments to properly address the human rights issues and situations of discrimination around the world that most require attention? Who will seek justice for millions of human rights victims around the world by demanding accountability from the government that oppressed them? Who will demand implementation for the victims most in need of the Durban declaration’s call for equality, non-discrimination, and fundamental freedom without distinctions of race, color, sex, language, religion, political, or other opinion national, or social origin? Who will speak out for the basic principles of human rights, tolerance and democracy that were bequeathed to us in the aftermath of the barbarous acts of World War Two by the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention, both of which now mark their 60th anniversary?

Today’s summit brings together some of the world’s well known human rights heroes, activists, dissidents, genocide survivors, legal scholars, diplomats, and statesmen. Victims and former prisoners of conscience will share with us their struggle, their suffering, and their dream of a more humane, free, and tolerant world. Today is an occasion for civil society to speak out for the millions of voiceless victims around the world from Darfur to Tibet, Burma to Iran, who everyday suffer from discrimination repression and persecution. Today through an interactive session, NGO networking and our concluding declaration, we will urge the United Nations this week to live up to its founding ideals.

Just one point of administration before we begin. Please turn off your cell phones and any electronic advice devices that will disturb us today. We will have about five sessions which will lead us to about 6:30 pm with a lunch break between 12:45 and 2:30 pm. It’s all in your conference packages, and there are some question forms on your tables. Please write your questions because after each session they will be open up to questions and you can hand these to the staff that will be in the aisles and they will be happy to provide [them to our moderator]. Those that are watching us via live webcam, you can also submit your questions at genevasummit.org. It’s also written on the homepage there.

As you may know the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be addressing tomorrow’s opening of the Durban Review Conference. I find it quite ironic that the man who denied the Holocaust from ever taking place, and who called for the destruction of Israel, is addressing this anti-racism conference. It reminds me of the time when the Islamic Republic of Iran sent Mortazavi, the chief prosecutor of Iran, as their key representative to the new Human Rights Council a couple years ago. The chief prosecutor that was involved in the death of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian photojournalist who I’m sure you’ve all heard about. I saw that as a slap to the face of the international community and I see this also as a slap to the face of the international community. First of all, President Ahmadinejad and his unelected puppeteer, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, do not represent the people of Iran, but represent a regime of intolerance and the most brutal human rights violations one can imagine.

I was born in Iran in 1979 at the start of the revolution that spiraled my country back into the Middle Ages and brought on severe human rights abuses. My father was imprisoned, tortured, and almost executed by the Revolutionary Guard simply for allowing alcohol, music, and dancing to be played at the hotel where he managed. This was forbidden under the new Islamic rule but nobody gave him the memo to tell him this. 

I know the very real feeling of having to uproot from one’s home and to start from scratch in another country at the expense of someone else’s political agenda. I am pleased that this Geneva summit is taking place, running parallel to the Durban Review Conference, because it gives a platform to people like myself, human rights defenders NGOs and victims of torture and human rights abuses, to speak truths. My fellow Iranian compatriots are sick of the lies and deceit of the Islamic Republic of Iran and lip service they give to the international community and we’re equally troubled by the relative inaction of the international community, or chosen blindsighted miss for economic reasons, to address Iran’s human rights abuses, and back the people of Iran who so desperately need the help of the free world to be their voice on the world stage. In fact, I call on the countries that believe in freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and the declaration of human rights to stand in solidarity with the people of Iran and walk out tomorrow from the Durban Review Conference when Mr. Ahmadinejad makes his address. 

I would like to directly quote President Ahmadinejad’s comments and clarify some of the lies he’s said in the last few years and set straight the record on what is truly taking place in Iran. False fact number one: last year when President Ahmadinejad addressed the National Press Club in New York he said the freest women in the world are women in Iran. Yes, I hear a few giggles, that’s exactly right. It’s true that the women in Iran are strong, they’re educated. 65 percent of the people in universities are women in Iran. They participate in civil society. However, the regime cannot take credit for what the women’s movement have built themselves. If they were so free and equal why would there be a huge campaign in Iran called the One Million Signatures Campaign to end discriminatory laws in Iran where women are trying to empower other women. It’s a grassroots movement. They go door-to-door empowering women, teaching them about their rights. Why would people like Nafisa Azad be imprisoned and arrested for simply collecting signatures for this campaign. 

Under Iran’s penal code, which is based on Sharia law, it states that a life of a woman is literally worth half of a man’s. For example, if you get into a car accident and you kill a woman you would only have to pay half as much as if you killed a man in compensation. Women are denied equal rights when it comes to divorce, intolerance, and inheritance. When a woman travels, she needs to get permission from her husband or father in order to travel. She’s forced to wear Islamic dress and cannot run for presidency or become a judge. I hardly call this being the freest in the world. Morality police would not have to go around arresting women, beating them for simply wearing boots over their jeans because it’s considered too western. Denying successful women’s rights activists the ability to leave Iran and accept international prizes like Padma. And Nasrin Sotoudeh was coming from abroad wanting to go back to Iran and do research. Like Isham Omi from the United States or Roxana Saberi, who just yesterday got an eight-year prison term on trumped-up charges of espionage. The regime fears that it is standing on its last legs and that they even have to shut down the Nobel Peace Laureate’s human rights center. 

False fact number two: in a speech at Columbia, Mr. Ahmadinejad said that there were no homosexuals in Iran. Could that be because the regime is executing homosexuals, like the case of teens Mahmoud A. Scotty and Ayaz Marhoni, who were publicly hanged in 2005? Or the more recent case of Maqvan Muluzade in December 2007, who was charged with rape for homosexual acts when he was 13 years old but the other 13 year old boy said that this was not a rape. [Despite this], they put him on a donkey, paraded him, insulted him. And when he turned 18, they executed him. 

On that same vein, what about false fact number three? What about the denial of the executions of juveniles taking place in Iran? Mr. Ahmadinejad in his interview with the New York Times on September 26, 2008, said in Iran “youngsters are not executed. Where have they been executed [if] our law actually sets 18 as the criminally reliable age for capital punishment.”  As president and co-founder of the stop child executions organization I would like to remind Mr. Ahmadinjead of Allahu Al Hasan, who was executed this year, the eight children that were executed last year, and the seven children executed the year before that. Not to mention the hundred and forty-plus children that are currently waiting on death row in Iran. Even Iran’s deputy state public prosecutor Hossein Azepi announced a few months ago at the 63rd annual UN General Assembly Panel that a memorandum had been sent to all bodies of the judiciary in Iran to stop executions and instructed judges to issue a maximum sentence of life imprisonment with possibility of parole after 15 years in lieu of execution. Only to retract his statement three days later when the General Assembly was finished, and clarify that what he meant was only drug traffickers. 

Iran is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which blatantly forbids the execution of those who’ve committed offenses before the age of 18. But what Iran does [is] they bastardize international law. Iran’s penal code is based on Sharia law. In this law it says that the age of puberty is nine years old for a girl, and 15 years old for a boy. This is clarified in article 49 of Iran’s penal code. Now what they do is they say fine, we won’t execute a nine year old girl, but we’ll wait till she turns 18 and then we’ll carry out the execution, which is a blatant violation of international human rights law. That said, there have been cases of children being executed before the age of 18 as recent as June 2008 when an Iranian Kurd Muhammad Hassan Zade was executed at the age of 16. Or a few years before that, artificer Hilarya Javi, who was executed also at age 16 for acts incompatible with chastity. In other words, for having sex outside of marriage. In less than 24 hours from now there’s a girl named Dela Darby who will be executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. A seventeen-year-old girl who spent the last five years in prison. Well now she’s 22. But unless people like you and me get involved and put enough pressure to grant a stay of her execution, [she will die]. There’s new evidence which proves it was a right-handed person that committed the murder; she is left-handed. But they will not give her a new trial to present this new evidence.

False fact number four: Iranian officials, including the head of judiciary, have repeatedly said that there was a moratorium on stoning and that they were not taking place anymore. However, one man was stoned to death in December and March, and two prior to that in December. Even if Mr. Ahmadinejad denies child executions and stonings, how does he justify the fact that Iran has the number one amount of executions in the world per capita coming only second to China, many of whom are political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. I will leave this to Ahmed Tabebi, the famous Iranian dissident that was imprisoned and tortured to speak more about the situation of political prisoners. But just to give you a perspective, the Islamic Republic of Iran has imprisoned and tortured for the last couple years Ayatollah Guru Jerdi, [] a Shia cleric [and] one of their own, simply for advocating for the separation of religion and state. What I’m thinking is if they can treat their own this way, what are they doing to other ethnic and religious minorities? Whether it’s Sunnis, Sufis, or lay Yasin dervishes, Zoroastrians, Christians, and among the worst. the Bahais, who are often denied access to university and proper jobs. Seven of their top leaders have been imprisoned. A few of the top Christian leaders in Iran [are] being imprisoned. The list goes on. 

Just to put a human face to this I would like to talk about Azita and Ahmed Raza, a refugee couple that just landed. I just welcomed them into Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. They are Christian converts, they spent five years in a prison in Iran repeatedly getting tortured both physically and emotionally, and they were made to promise that they would not continue with their activities. They were part of the 1999 student demonstrations for freedom and democracy but they still felt the fear when they got out of prison because of the new apostasy laws that exist in Iran. The draft apostasy laws condemns somebody that converts from Islam to another religion to death. They lived in fear for many years and hid until they finally escaped through the mountains to Kurdistan, to Iraq, on to Turkey, and tried to get to Greece, where their family lived. Only to get arrested by the Greek police, sent back on the shores of Turkey. The Turkish police, the authorities, grabbed them, put them in jail for nine months for being illegal aliens until finally the UNHCR gave them refugee status and then Canada gave them asylum. But what I’m trying to say here is why should thousands have to escape Iran, their homeland country, that they don’t want to leave. The same exists for labor unionists in Iran. Many people are leaving. This is why this oil-rich country has seen a spike in poverty, drug abuse, prostitution hiv/aids. Believe it or not they’ve even imprisoned some of the top leading activists in terms of hiv/aids, doctors, Kamiya, our ally. She’s currently in prison on charges for 3 to 6 years; imprisonment because of talking about hiv/aids. They said they’ve conspired with national foreign governments, but it’s all trumped up charges. Other countries are using these doctors as models to create their own HIV harm reduction programs, but yet my country of birth has imprisoned them. 

Why should I be even nervous being here in Switzerland? Because I know that dissidents have even been murdered outside of Iran. Because I know nothing is beneath the Islamic Republic of Iran. When the international community recognizes the real faces and voices of the Iranian people. We are good people with a rich history and a lot to offer. We are the sons and daughters of Cyrus the Great, the founding father of Persia who advocated, who drafted, the first Declaration of Human Rights the world has ever known 2,500 years ago, banning slavery and advocating for freedom of religion. Iranians want freedom. The demographics are on the side of democratic change. 70% of the population in Iran is below the age of 30. They’re thirsty for freedom, thirsty to connect with the West. We simply need to empower them, the students, the women, the labor unions, and we will have the recipe for peace in Iran and the surrounding area in the Middle East. Those running for Parliament shouldn’t have to be vetted by the conservative Guardian council, appointed by the Supreme Leader. The buck does not stop Iran. All those living under authoritarian rule, like China, like Burma, and others, deserve the right to establish their future under a democratic system. The world, united in our voices, I believe we can make that happen.

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